Emmerson Mnangagwa: the crocodile that never understood itself and the waters?

By Moses Tofa

Emmerson Mnangagwa’s uneventful expulsion from the government seemed to show that the crocodile failed to understand itself throughout the long period of its stay in the deep waters. It appears that Mnangagwa pursued his agenda to succeed Mugabe on the basis of the myths about him which were circulating in the public domain. It is normal for people to create and believe myths about a mountain which they never climbed, which they see from a distance.

Moses Tofa
Moses Tofa

They can see smoke where there is no smoke. But surely those who stay close to the mountain (and sometimes climb and fetch wood from it or tend their cattle) should be able to debunk the myths. They should know that there are no strange things which take place in that mountain.

And above all, it is strange for the mountain itself to create myths about itself and devoutly believe in them. Mnangagwa could have been such a mountain. People far from it created myths, people around it created myths, and so did the mountain itself.

There is not a vestige of doubt that Mnangagwa is one of the heroes of the liberation struggle. Whether in ZANU-PF or outside the party, he will be remembered for his contribution to the liberation struggle. And of course, he will also be remembered for his dark hand in the post-independence state. Mnangagwa has walked a long journey.

Along the journey, many things were said about him. These included that he was a cruel, strategic, shrewd, composed, powerful and “untouchable” politician. Many of those who are not in the corridors of power and are not (more) informed about the “inside” of ZANU-PF, held a mythicized perception of the crocodile. Probably unknown to them was that they claimed to know a creature which had no knowledge of itself.

Mnangagwa rose to the Vice Presidency in 2014 following Joyce Mujuru’s expulsion. Many people believed that the expulsion of Mujuru was easy for President Mugabe because Mujuru was powerless, especially considering that her husband had not only died, but had died under suspicious circumstances. After his ascendancy, Mnangagwa continued to fight in the succession trenches under the banner team “Lacoste”.

However, his ambitions were opposed by the G40 faction. There were moments when Mnangagwa gained ground and when it seemed that he was going to take over from President Mugabe. Many people thought that President Mugabe would not deal with Mnangagwa in the same way he dealt with Joyce Mujuru in 2014 because of the belief that he had support in the security establishment.

Some of Mnangagwa’s allies claimed that should President Mugabe named a successor who was not Mnangagwa, there would be a civil strife in Zimbabwe. It was generally believed that with support in the security establishment, Mnangagwa was capable of staging a coup should the succession card have fallen in the hands of someone else.

When Jonathan Moyo fearlessly opposed Mnangagwa, many thought that the professor was a daredevil, that he was playing a dangerous game. They wondered how Jonathan Moyo, a man without roots neither in ZANU-PF nor in the liberation struggle, could challenge the feared crocodile.

Now it appears that Moyo was not careless. He had the knowledge about a creature which had no self-understanding. He had fought for Mnangagwa before, especially during the Tsholotsho declaration. Mnangagwa did not attend Tsholotsho and when the plans failed, Moyo was expelled and he had to fight for his political life. Mnangagwa never defended.

The crocodile remained in the waters when his own ally was being savaged. From his experience, Moyo could have known that the mountain which people claimed was mysterious was not mysterious at all. He knew that Mnangagwa was a proverbial owl so he played the role of a proverbial nhengure bird. When the other birds watched the proverbial nhengure fighting the mythicized owl, they thought that the nhengure was out of its mind. But to their surprise, the owl, with its “horns” up, gave up to the nhengure. But of course, the nhengure was getting its power from somewhere. But tell no lies and claim no easy victories: it is not yet Uhuru for the proverbial nhengure.

The firing of Mnangagwa took many people by surprise. The previous day, President Mugabe had threatened to fire Mnangagwa “mangwana chaiye” (even tomorrow). The following day, President Mugabe planned a press conference. However, we soon heard that the conference had been postponed. Relying on the belief that Mnangagwa had military backing, many people claimed that the postponement was because the security establishment had warned President Mugabe against firing Mnangagwa. However, true to his word and in a typical Machiavellian fashion, President Mugabe fired Mnangagwa that very day (06 November 2017).

When the news that Mnangagwa had been fired started to spread like wildfire, many people thought that being the crocodile he was, Mnangagwa would not go without a fight. To their surprise, there was no response from the crocodile. He simply took the punishment silently.

During the succession battle, there were moments when Mnangagwa was attacked, many times by “little birds” which could have been acting on orders from the top, but he remained silent. Others regarded his silence as cowardice while others perceived it as strategic and shrewdness. But when he was fire and remained silent, the silence was not interpreted as shrewdness but as weakness. It was in this context that people began to ask the question: was the crocodile a real crocodile? And of course, the majority view is that the crocodile was merely a myth. 

What could Mnangagwa have done differently?

I argue that Mnangagwa’s fall (at least for now) was a result of his failure to understand the three pillars of succession politics in ZANU-PF. These are: the candidate seeking to succeed Mugabe (in this case Mnangagwa himself–especially his net power, capabilities and incapabilities), Robert and Grace Mugabe, and the succession terrain itself. In terms of himself, Mnangagwa is a crocodile which could have relied on myths rather than a concrete and clear understanding of itself.

In terms of the Mugabes, Mnangagwa failed to understand that President Mugabe is a student of Machiavellian politics. The reason why Mnangagwa gained ground in some cases was that Mugabe pretended to be weak in order to give him the room to err so that he could crush the crocodile’s head. Mugabe needed grounds to rationalise a strike, especially considering that Mnangagwa has been with him for many years. And Mnangagwa gave him the grounds, he surely he erred. 

At one point, Mnangagwa was pictured holding a mug with the inscription “I AM BOSS”. When he attended the memorial of Shuvai Mahofa, his speech indicated someone who was confident of victory. He promised that the end would be characterised by the gnashing of teeth.

Like those people who live far from the mythicized mountain, Mnangagwa ended up believing the myth that Mugabe was afraid of him. He failed to uncover the snare and he walked into it with a big smile. Mnangagwa could also have fallen victim to the thought of entitlement given his liberation credentials, seniority, and long walk with Mugabe. The problem is that this does not work, especially when you dream of succeeding a student of Machiavellian politics.

In terms of the succession terrain, Mnangagwa failed to take lessons from the fall of Mujuru. Yes, he could have played a direct or indirect role in the fall of Mujuru but surely there were lessons to be learnt. The lessons are that it is a terrain which one has to show loyalty to the President, even if it means pretending.

It is a terrain on which you have to put your head down and raise it only when you got hold of it. It is a terrain in which you pursue your succession battle via the interests of the Mugabes. G40 is a faction but Mugabe did not look at it as one because it serves his interests. Grace claimed that she inquired but found no evidence of the existence of G40. Mnangagwa did not take these lessons. Probably it was because of arrogance. He believed that he was made of different material than Mujuru. But it turned out not to be so, at least for now.

Given the aforesaid three pillars, I argue that there were two options which could have brought different results for Mnangagwa. When Grace Mugabe was attacking Joyce Mujuru, there were moments when she spoke highly of Mnangagwa.

At some point, she stated that Mnangagwa accepted the decision which had been made by President Mugabe to allow Joyce Mujuru to be elevated to Vice Presidency despite that many provinces had supported Mnangagwa’s ascendancy. Grace exhibited the view that Mnangagwa was someone who was loyal to Mugabe, who was ready to give away what is rightfully his for the sake of listening to his boss. It was this perspective of Mnangagwa which gave her the incentive to support his ascendancy to the Vice Presidency in 2014.

I argue that option one was for Mnangagwa to completely disband his Lacoste faction (as soon as he had been appointed Vice President) and try as much as he could to be loyal to President Mugabe. It is true that by that time, he had already been tainted by the legacy of factionalism. However, this strategy was going to sanitize his past mistakes and take him back on the course of unrivalled loyalty to President Mugabe. After all, his chief rival, Joyce Mujuru, had already been soundly defeated.

In fact, the fall of Mujuru and his elevation gave Mnangagwa the opportunity to pursue his objectives by other means. A shrewd politician knows when to play a different card. He could have started to champion the anti-factionalism card. Taking advantage of his long walk with Mugabe, he could have projected himself as the unrivaled loyal cadre. By elevating him, Mugabe had demonstrated generosity. Mnangagwa was supposed to return the generosity by disbanding Lacoste.

A good politician exercises selfish generosity. And of course, the elevation could have been a tactical trap. Mugabe could have elevated him in order to give him the fuel to carelessly and confidently increase his pace in the succession agenda. Unbeknown to him was that Mugabe could have wanted Mnangagwa to be seen as fighting Mugabe himself. Mugabe would not want an unchecked Mnangagwa. With Mujuru out of the way, Mugabe could have created G40 and of course, Mnangagwa was bound to come to a checkmate point. He was not fighting G40, he was in a fight against Mugabe.

The importance of option one was that it could have made it difficult for the G40 faction to emerge in the first place. But even if it were to emerge, the option was going to per-empty G40 by making it difficult for it to play him against Mugabe. G40 was strategic in that it did not look for a candidate away from the first family. The strategy was to make sure that Mnangagwa would be fighting against Mugabe, most of the time without his knowledge.

It also made it possible for Mugabe to fight the unsuspecting Mnangagwa using the proverbial little birds. At times Mugabe scolded his own birds with the intention of deceiving. Option one was also going to make it difficult for Grace to aspire to ascend the ZANU-PF ladder ahead of Mnangagwa.

She probably was going to be content with rising to the Vice Presidency, with Mnangagwa succeeding Mugabe. Even though Mugabe could still not have chosen Mnangagwa as his successor, at least he was not going to fire him. At times it is important to ensure that you remain in the battlefield, even in a weak position. Because you can always (re)strategise and fight another day. But when you are cast out, there is probably no more chance to fight.

Option two was to keep his Lacoste faction as a power reserve but make sure that it functions from underground. It was supposed to be as invisible as possible. In other words, the faction could have continued to exist but in a mythical form than an open reality. He would use the faction very rarely and only in circumstances where it was absolutely necessary to launch a defensive or offensive.

It was supposed to fully come out only at the most defining moment of the succession battle, the moment when the red line had to be crossed. A mythical Lacoste would have made it easy for Mnangagwa to deny any accusations about factionalism. It was not going to give Mugabe reasonable grounds to fire Mnangagwa. It was going to make it possible for Mnangagwa to pretend to be loyal to Mugabe with a degree of trustworthiness. An “open Lacoste” made it difficult for him to claim loyalty to Mugabe, especially when some of the members openly challenged Mugabe.

These options were supposed to be backed by a clear, concrete and adaptable strategy. G40 had Jonathan Moyo in its strategy room but Lacoste had no one. In fact, there was no strategy room to talk about for Lacoste. It was just the crocodile myth which was supposed to do the job for them. Myths can work, but only as long as the birds believe that the horns on the owls’ head are ears.

But when the proverbial bird comes out, the ears will never turn into horns. The owl is bound to flee, sometimes without putting a fight. Mnangagwa needed to be patient because his power was vested in time. He needed to make sure that he was not forced out of water and both of the aforesaid options were able to do that job. But regrettably, his strategy forced him outside the waters. The question is: will he return?

It is cold outside ZANU-PF: But would it be warm for the crocodile?

For the crocodile, ZANU-PF represented a deep sea from which to strategise. The major question at the moment is that if the crocodile failed to be a crocodile when he was in the deep waters, would he be a crocodile when he is outside the waters? Mnangagwa is on record stating that as soon as anybody goes out of ZANU-PF, they will shrivel like a leaf which has fallen from a tree. In simple terms, he meant that it is difficult to politically and economically survive outside ZANU-PF.

There is meaning to this claim. There are numerous cases of people who fell on hard times after their expulsion from ZANU-PF. The “it is cold outside ZANU-PF” banner has a track record. It can be tracked back to Edgar Tekere when he was expelled from ZANU-PF in October 1988. Tekere moved to form the Zimbabwe Unity Movement in 1989.

ZANU-PF made every effort to make sure that Tekere falls. And surely, Tekere never made it outside ZANU-PF. ZUM collapsed and his economic fortunes collapsed too. This is a two-pronged “policy” with a “warm” and a “cold” side. It is used at both the elite and the mass levels. The “cold side” has two sides, a “hard” one and a “soft” one. It is used to deal with cadres who would have been expelled or suspended from the party.

At the elite level, the “hard side” is used to pauperise former comrades by confiscating their corruptly-acquired sources of income such as farms and business ventures. Comrades are allowed to be corrupt on condition that they are loyal to the one centre of power. Once they are expelled for disloyalty, the impunity is lifted. A host of charges, including witchcraft, can be levelled against the former cadre.

The cadre will be put under constant watch and the threats of imprisonment and physical insecurity will be ever present, especially if he/she becomes a vocal critic of ZANU-PF. If the expelled cadre was as influential as Mnangagwa and Mujuru, the hard side will be extended to his/her allies. At the mass level, party deserters and critics, and by extension opposition supporters, are deliberately excluded from access to resources. They also become victims of all forms of abuses.

The “soft side” is usually characterised by demotions and reduced access to resources. On the other hand, the “warm” side encourages corruption. At the elite level, party cadres are allowed to be corrupt, as long as they remain loyal to the party. At the mass level, loyalists are given preferential access to resources such as land, stall markets, residential stands, agricultural inputs, and food handouts. State institutions are also wired to give them first preference. The main difference between the elite and the mass in terms of access to resources is the “quality and quantity of access”.

Having been expelled, Mnangagwa will be a victim of the hard side of this policy. The fight did not end with his expulsion. In fact, the expulsion was the beginning of a long fight. Mnangagwa’s opponents want him to flee, even when no one pursues him. When the wind blows, he must think that it’s ZANU-PF. One of the strategies of President Mugabe is to “keep the files” of his cadres.

The “files” cannot be used against the cadres as long as they are loyal. However, the moment that a particular carder has been expelled on accusations of disloyalty, real and bogus files will be opened in order to make charges against him/her. Serious charges are therefore going to be made against Mnangagwa. He will have no time to focus on his plans.

Offensives will be launched against his economic empire. Many of his allies will be uprooted completely, others will be suspended, while some will be “reformed”, accepted and accommodated. The agenda will be to destroy his Lacoste faction root and branch. By the time that ZANU-PF will go to its extraordinary congress in December, the Lacoste faction would be nothing more than ruins, but there will be resilient species. There is no doubt that the crocodile will find it cold outside ZANU-PF. But the major question is that can he turn the cold into warmth?

Where should the crocodile go from here?

Mnangagwa faces difficult options. The first major hurdle is his age. Given that he is 75 years old, an early opportunity to rise to the Presidential position would have been ideal for him. Now that he is amidst the political wilderness, if he is still interested, it means starting another long and strong fight. It is not palatable to start such a fight at the age of 75.

What makes it difficult is that he can no longer fight from within ZANU-PF and even from within Zimbabwe. He will therefore fight from a very weak position. However, he can still fight if he wishes. There are basically four ways which the crocodile can take.

The first way would be to form a political party. The time is very strategic because elections are around the corner. However, without other opposition parties, he will be of little significance as the case of Joyce Mujuru has already taught us. He will have to work with other parties, especially in a coalition. However, he cannot go into a coalition and claim to be the face of the struggle.

He will have to deputize someone. But the pride that he is a liberation hero and that he has been in power for the past 37 years may stand in the way. His history will always be viewed with suspicion and even hate in the trenches of opposition politics. But he has a big constituency of sympathizers who can be turned into supporters. The major impediment to option one is that he will only take it at the pleasure of ZANU-PF. ZANU-PF would not want him to be a threat any more.

The party would use real and bogus “files” against him to the point that he may be convicted and imprisoned. Even though he may not be imprisoned, ZANU-PF will make sure that the “files” are always hanging from above his head. The strategy would be to make him live in a constant state of fear. He may be forced to flee the country and strategise from the diaspora.

The second way would be simply to retire from active politics and focus on other pursuits. But the problem is that he comes from the school of thought which says that politics is a tree and a politician is a leaf. He will take time to recover from likening himself to a leaf which has fallen from the tree. The advantage of this option is that it makes ZANU-PF to consider him a threat no more.

This will discourage the party from making and taking further threats against him. It will sheathe its swords into ploughshares. He would enjoy a peaceful life far from the political terrain which treated him harshly. However, the problem with this option is that he wouldn’t want to retire as a bitter and wounded victim, let alone of the proverbial little birds which engineered his fall. The humiliation which he suffered reversed his legacy in the twinkling of an eye. He would surely want to die with a fight instead of going with his shame. But fighting for the sake of retribution re-honor would not be a good step.

The third way would be to feign “political leave” while waiting for the departure of President Mugabe (if he will be fortunate enough to live beyond Mugabe’s time). The post-Mugabe era may present opportunities for him. It is difficult to see a successor who will be able to keep ZANU-PF united and strong after President Mugabe is gone.

It is also clear that many ZANU-PF supporters and leaders are supporting the rise of Grace Mugabe with their lips but their hearts are seething with disgruntlement. They will fight for an inconvenient transition while holding the view that the succession plan was not handled in accordance with the principles of the party. They will feel that it was hijacked by new comers. After Mugabe is gone, the disgruntlement will have a chance to vent, giving room for the crocodile to try and address a historical mistake.

The fourth and hard way would be to cross the red line and launch a defensive-offensive. Why should he not do so when his opponents have crossed it already? This option is characterised by mobilising his support base, especially war veterans and elements in the security establishment, to resist and try to reverse his expulsion. Although the support base has been and will be further weakened, there would always be resilient left overs which are both active and passive.

For the left overs to have any impact, they would need charismatic, courageous, and “sacrificial” leadership. The major challenge for this option is that it may get out of hand and cause the loss of lives and livelihoods. I therefore argue that while the crocodile has been forced out of water, it is not wise to completely rule out his potential return into the waters.

I also argue that like the crocodile, Grace is gaining ground using a borrowed garment. In politics, it is safer to have one’s own garment. It will remain to be seen if she would be able to mend her own. If she fails, the day that the borrowed garment will be taken away will mark the fall of her political fortunes. There is room that Grace may end up in the same position as Mnangagwa or even worse.

For me, the question is not whether Grace would rise to the Vice Presidency and eventually to the Presidency, but whether the rise will last. If it lasts, that will be a remarkable rise for her but she should always prepare for the worst. I wish the crocodile well, maybe with some sheer twist of fate, there will be water one day.  Let him wake up and brew the beer. But if the ancestors would not be generous enough to provide water once more, Mnangagwa will leave the footprints and legacy, not of a liberation hero, but of a proverbial crocodile.

Moses Tofa is a scholar and political analyst. He is completing a PhD in Politics and International Relations with the University of Johannesburg. He can be contacted on [email protected]